ARA Gets a Dressing-Down
Private developer under consideration for completing redevelopment of East Austin's 11th and 12th street corridors
The board's change of heart, which appears to carry the support of Chairman Ben Sifuentes, is almost as startling as it is awkward. Federally backed renewal efforts in East Austin have for years operated under a trilateral agreement between the city, the Urban Renewal Agency board, and the ARA. That agreement expires on Sept. 30, and the City Council initially was expected to consider renewing it at the Sept. 27 meeting. But that schedule is now in flux, given the Urban Renewal Board's decision to delay a vote on the contract for 45 days, at the request of the ARA.
After Monday night's meeting, Sifuentes raised skepticism about the ARA's accomplishments, considering its mission to return this section of East Austin to what was once an economically thriving community of African-American-owned businesses. Sifuentes questioned whether the ARA was simply another layer of bureaucracy that could be cut out of the redevelopment process. Should that happen, he suggested hypothetically, what remains of the city-controlled land could be put up to the highest bidder.
During the meeting, Sifuentes touched on the plight of East Austin's Mexican-American community, which he says has yet to see any affordable-housing initiative materialize. "The reality of what's happening out there is that people are losing their homes," he said. "I don't know where my people are going to wind up. Bastrop? I don't know where my people will go, and they're losing their homes, and the housing costs over here [in East Austin] are astronomical. Who can afford it?"
Clearly, the ARA and Urban Renewal Board members have much to discuss as they spend the next 45 days trying to work out their differences. ARA Executive Director Byron Marshall acknowledged that his agency had faced unexpected delays, which he blamed on the difficulty of juggling redevelopment pressures with rising land prices and federal funding demands. ARA board member Charles Urdy reminded the Urban Renewal Board of how bad things were in the crime-ridden neighborhood before the ARA's redevelopment efforts kicked in. To try to replace the ARA after such results would be disastrous, Urdy said. "We ought to be congratulating each other about the accomplishments that we have made up to this point," he said.
Some neighborhood leaders don't entirely agree with Urdy's assessment. Sewah Archer and Rudy Williams, of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, appeared before the board to express frustration with the ARA's delays on various projects. Others, like longtime activist Scottie Ivory, were generally supportive of the ARA but said they want to see more progress on affordable housing.
Even though the Urban Renewal Board agreed to the 45-day delay, Urdy's message to the board did not placate everyone. Board member Cristina de la Fuente-Valadez offered a heated warning that her vote for the delay did not indicate her support of the ARA. "I want to state that I in no way with my vote am stating that there are no problems. There are significant problems," she said. "My vote ... also isn't necessarily in agreement with the tri-party agreement. I think that for the tri-party agreement to move forward, it needs to be very specific about addressing affordable-housing issues and about meeting very specific benchmarks within a specified amount of time."